British Chineseness in the mind of Susie Wong

By Charmaine Au-Yeung

It’s mid-March, and my eyes are glazing over he-said-she-said bickering between Home Office officials. Unfortunately, it’s all relevant to my dissertation – I study the Hong Kong Chinese diaspora and their emigration to Britain. I desperately need another coffee but cannot bring myself to buy one (it’s London). Stretching my limbs, I turn my attention to a set of files, written in 1986 by the London Strategic Policy Unit (LSPU) about the creation of a Chinese Community Centre. I mindlessly thumb through, feeling the weight of its 100 pages. A sigh out. A sharp breath in. I expect nothing … But as I read, my eyes widen – I don’t need another coffee. I feel like I’ve struck archival gold.

The idea for the centre was first developed in 1985 between the LSPU and ‘a representative of the Chinese community’.[1] The representative in question is most obviously Susie Wong (not to be confused with the titular character from the 1960 film ‘The World of Suzie Wong’), who describes herself as ‘founder of the Chinese Film Society’ in London. Admittedly, I don’t know anything about her backstory; she doesn’t feature elsewhere in the archives, and googling her name yields no results – save for one 1994 article in The Guardian where she appears, as a co-signatory, in favour of arts education.[2] Nevertheless, she’s interesting to me as her name pops up, frequently, as the person ‘most active in pursuing the development of the Chinese Cultural Centre [and] has applied for exclusive change of use of the buildings to that of a Chinese Cultural and Education Centre’.[3] Moreover, it is explicitly stated that the centre was ‘designed by a Chinese woman to meet the needs of Chinese women’.[4] Though the latter quote clearly suggests a gendered dimension to purpose and function of the centre, for sake of brevity I won’t go into detail here.[5] Instead, I use the explicitness of Wong’s involvement as clear indication that the centre is her brainchild, and that this case of files thus speaks to her personal understanding of ‘British Chineseness’.

Although I don’t know much about Wong, the source tells me a lot about how she thinks. Though the proposal is for something entitled ‘Chinese Community Centre’, it is not exclusively about being Chinese. I argue it speaks to Wong’s specific viewpoint on how her British Chinese identity reflects British racial structures and global political happenings. It is through practicing her Chineseness in the British space that gives her a place in Britain, and in turn this wider practice of her culture is put in conversation with late Cold War tensions between China, Hong Kong, and the West. In reading the file, I’m reminded of Tonio Andrade’s plea to write ‘global microhistories’: the use of ‘individual lives to explore the connections between groups of people [and] bigger structural problems’ to bring to life how ‘certain processes’ were ‘lived through’.[6]

The most striking and personal source in this case is a draft script of a film, ‘From Four Until Four’, which Wong has written and wishes to produce.[7] She has included this in her proposal not only because she founded the Chinese Film Society, but also as indication of the breadth of cultural activities she envisages the centre supporting. The script tells us a great deal about carving up one’s identity and existence as an immigrant. Though we might typically imagine immigrants as ‘people with feet in two societies’, such phrasing presupposes a kind of equality in how these identities are balanced, and that these people consider themselves equally as British as they are Chinese.[8]

Instead, Wong’s script suggests that she sees herself as more Chinese than British, and that her belonging in the British nation is rooted in her ability to practice her Chineseness undisturbed, much like how one might practice a religion. In the script, Wong presents a utopic, peaceful vision of Chinatown as a bustling hub of activity separate to the rest of London. She describes ‘the other part of London’ as full of pedestrians and office workers early in the morning – yet just across the road, ‘Chinatown remains quiet’.[9] This clear delineation between Chinatown and ‘the other part’ is further reaffirmed when, after 11 am, she describes Chinatown as ‘suddenly … becoming noisy and congested with cars and people as if they come from nowhere’.[10] The image of this cacophony springing up from nowhere has a theatrical quality to it, and serves to heighten both the degree of separateness of the Chinatown and the idea that this is very much Wong’s curated image of the place.

Crucially, however, we cannot infer from this clear delineation between Chinatown and London stereotypical visions of the Chinese as ‘inward-looking’.[11] Instead, she envisages Chinatown as a culturally open space despite its clear distinctiveness: ‘tourists and members of the local community will come to observe and find out what is going on. Although their presence is conspicuous to the surrounding the atmosphere is peaceful and harmonious’.[12] The imperative ‘will be’ indicates certainty in this judgement, that non-Chinese people will engage with Chinese culture without racial conflict.

It is also worth noting that this utopic vision of Chinatown is fundamentally Chinese in character despite its location in British geographic space: ‘A Chinese take away prepares its roast pork and ducks, Chinese bakers their cakes and buns, and kitchen-hands various dim sum dishes’.[13] A music shop has ‘all the traditional sounds of Chinese instruments emanating from the doorway’.[14] Indeed, nothing demarcates that these activities are taking place in Britain except for mentions Wong makes to their geographical location, e.g., ‘Gerrard Street’, ‘the underground’, and ‘Heathrow’.[15] Wong thus presents Chinese culture as something that can easily traverse geographical borders, becoming ‘modular, capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains’, in the words of Benedict Anderson.[16] To Wong, to be ‘British Chinese’ is to practice Chinese culture in a new land.

Indeed, there is a good reason that Wong thinks of her Chinese identity along the lines of Anderson’s ‘imagined community’. As she writes in her proposal, the community centre:

‘is not a strategic response to the cultural problems of the Chinese in London. The city of Hong Kong reverts to mainland Chinese management in 1997. This will effectively isolate the Chinese community in Britain from their homeland […] There is therefore an overwhelming need for a specifically cultural response to help the Chinese prepare to raise the self-confidence of their community’.[17]

Wong’s British Chinese identity thus became a way for her to engage with the Cold War personally. Having a safe space to practice Chineseness in Britain was a way for her to maintain her unique identity as a Hong Konger. Altogether, a dive into Wong’s mind demonstrates that questions of how one ‘belongs’ to Britain could never really be disentangled from global politics – a problem made all-the-more salient as the 1997 handover approached.

[1] Director of the London Strategic Policy Unit and the Head of the Arts & Recreation Group, Chinese Cultural and Educational Centre Proposal, 08/05/1986, LSPU/RAG/01/002, London Metropolitan Archives.

[2] The Guardian, Letters to the Editor, Wrong Tune, January 20 1994, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer, p. 21.

[3] Susie Wong, Chinese Cultural and Educational Centre Proposal, 1986, LSPU/RAG/01/002, London Metropolitan Archives, p. 6.

[4] Ibid., p. 8.

[5] I’m saving this point for the dissertation!

[6] Tonio Andrade, ‘A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys, and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory’, Journal of World History 21, no. 4 (December 2010), pp. 574, 591.

[7] Chinese Film Society to Mr Andy Ganf, Arts and Division London Boroughs Grant Scheme, 19 August 1986, LSPU/RAG/01/002, London Metropolitan Archives, p. 1.

[8] Elsa Chaney, ‘The World Economy and Contemporary Migration’, International Migration Review 13, no. 2 (June 1979), p. 209.

[9] Susie Wong, Draft Treatment and Script for a 30 min video documentary – Women’s Chinese Film Workshop: From Four Until Four, 19 August 1986, LSPU/RAG/01/002, London Metropolitan Archives, p. 1.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Wang Gungwu, ‘Preface’, in Chinese Migrants and Internationalism: Forgotten Histories, 1917-1945, by Gregor Benton, Chinese Worlds (London/New York, 2007), xi.

[12] Wong, Draft Treatment and Script, p. 2.

[13] Ibid., p. 1.

[14] Ibid., p. 2.

[15] Ibid., pp. 1, 2.

[16] Benedict R. O’G. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd ed. (London/New York, 1983), p. 4.

[17] Susie Wong, Chinese Cultural and Educational Centre Proposal, 1986, LSPU/RAG/01/002, London Metropolitan Archives, p. 3.

Image credit: Author’s own photograph.

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